About two weeks ago, Scott Woods, the slam master for Writers’ Block, challenged people to create something we have never done before. I chose to write a short story. I can say, now, that it is finished. I’m on the verge of tears. I had always been scared of writing something like this… didn’t know how to handle writing continuously. I muddled through, though, and have never felt more proud.
So, I give you “Just Jim,” with the announcement that, yeah, “I made this!”
He finished his supper in silence. Well, if anyone wanted to call it supper– two day old pizza with the consistency of rubber. It quieted the rumbling of his stomach, though; and that was all that counted. Too bad it didn’t do anything for his mind.
Jim stared off in the darkness; the storm knocked out a transformer, so he was stuck listening to the deafening silence of his empty house, interrupted periodically by the purring of his cat, Sookie. What he wouldn’t give to have an old house– one where the walls would creak and groan with the roaring of the winds and drown out the chorus of loss ringing in his ears. One name, replayed over and over again, filling him to the point where he could do nothing but sigh,
“I miss you, Eliza Grace.”
Eliza Grace Mathews. Eliza Grace Mathews of the “East Side Mathews” family– a family of doctors, lawyers, even a former mayor or two. She was known as E.G. to her family and most of her friends. She was the free spirit who decided to become a writer instead of a fourth generation medical school or law school student. Her parents threatened to disinherit her, but then she sold her first book. Then she became “Our daughter, the author,” and a new wave of old money crashed into the Mathews family social gatherings– each bringing offerings of single sons to the only daughter of Dr. and Mrs. Mathews.
But she was just Eliza Grace to Jim. He loved the way each syllable rolled off his tongue; and she loved how he loved it. During mid-day conversations about nothing at all, or when he quietly moaned her name in their most secret moments, he could feel her release all of the responsibilities of “E.G.,” the dutiful daughter and “E.G. Mathews,” the celebrated author. She just became Eliza Grace, a simple, passion-filled woman, drawn into the arms of the man she loved.
Jim had met Eliza Grace at a book signing. She was there signing copies of her latest book, and he was there… buying another book. Jim had never even HEARD of E.G. Mathews– his reading habits skewed more towards science journals and educational materials he used in his 9th grade science classes; but when he saw her sitting at the table– with blazing red hair and large eyes– he knew he had to meet her. Jaw droppingly beautiful women didn’t drift into his part of the world too often, and he wasn’t about to leave without at least looking into her eyes just once.
He quickly ran to the display table loaded down with her various works, grabbed the first book he saw and rushed to pay for it and get in line. When Jim reached the table, she looked up at him, held out her hand to take his book, and said,
“Hello, there. Who am I making this out to?”
Jim was dumbfounded. Her voice had such a soft, lilting quality to it. He could almost feel his heart stop, and the blood rush from his face.
Jim stumbled, “My name’s James, b-but my friends call me Jimmy… or Jim…yeah… Jim… just Jim.”
Eliza chuckled, “Well, ‘Just Jim,’ I kind of need that book if I’m going to sign it.”
Jim blushed and handed over the book, staring at her blue-gray eyes the entire time. Eliza blushed slightly at the intensity of Jim’s gaze and lowered her eyes to the book in her hand. She paused for a second then bit her lip as she tried to stifle a laugh. She looked up, and with as straight a face as she could muster said,
“I was quite proud of this book. Don’t know why, but the line ‘Call me Ishmael’ just had a ring to it.”
Jim started to nod in return, but then his face when from hopeful nervousness to outright terror. He slowly looked down to see that this glorious looking woman in front of him was holding not one of her books, but a copy of “Moby Dick.” And that was exactly what Jim felt like.
Only one way to salvage the situation:
“Well, I figured if you signed it, it would turn the world’s most boring book into something worth keeping.”
Eliza burst out in a full-throated laugh.
” ‘Just Jim’, you’re a mighty poor liar, but at least you’re honest about it.”
Jim knew he was in as he went for the kill.
“Well, meet me for coffee, Ms. Mathews and I promise I’ll have even worse lies to tell.”
E.G. Mathews–celebrated author– held out her hand to Jim, smiled and said,
“Deal. Call me Eliza Grace.”
And that was almost two years ago.
What started off as a cup of coffee at a low-rent coffee shop turned into dinner at a four star restaurant two nights later which then turned into a dinner and play date a week after that.
Each time they met, conversation never lacked. Jim and Eliza shared a penchant for Gen X music and little known movies. They both had wicked senses of humor and were quite fond of trying to top each other in one liners. During quiet evenings, Eliza would listen intently as Jim discussed the trials and tribulations of guiding a bunch of teenager through the table of elements; and Jim loved hearing her talk about her newest story or dealing with fans and critics.
Neither could dance, but that didn’t stop them from getting on the dance floor and making utter and unrepentant fools out of themselves.
It was the slow dances, though, that Jim looked forward to the most. Feeling her head on his chest as they swayed to the eslow rhythm of romance. How he kept his heart from exploding from his rib cage that first time, he still doesn’t know; but afterward, all he felt was contentment and love.
Jim was too caught up in reminiscing to notice a paw on his nose. First one tap, then two. Jim startled at the second tap, focused on Sookie standing on her hind legs looking him intently in the eye. Jim laughed at this absurd sight no one else could see.
“Sorry, Sook. Thanks for bringing me home.”
Sookie, job done for the moment, jumped off his lap and took up her mouse ball again. Jim and Sookie had become closer these past three months. Three months after moving in together, Jim and Eliza had rescued Sookie. Sookie took to Eliza more than to Jim, snuggling in her lap as she tried to type or bringing her one of the many cat toys she was fond of playing fetch with.
Jim would have his moments with Sookie, too, curling around his feet if Eliza was out of the house awhile. Once she came back home, though, Sookie was all hers.
“I’m sorry, honey,” Eliza would say as she blushed. Jim could tell she felt a tinge of guilt at Sookie’s preference.
Jim smiled. “It’s okay, baby. I’d make the same choice.”
Jim looked at Sookie playing in the floor. He knows she hasn’t been quite the same, but they had become closer, snuggling in bed at night and staying close to each other when Jim came home from work. Jim felt like Sookie was trying to get through this, too. He knew Sookie knew they needed each other.
But if Jim and Sookie needed each other, they both needed Eliza Grace more. He just didn’t know that until she was gone.
He could still feel the brick that landed dead center in his gut when Eliza broke the news during dinner with her parents.
“I got a phone call from my agent today,” Eliza announced over wine. “We finalized the deal to adapt the new book series into a T.V. show.”
Everyone at the table let out a happy gasp.
“Wonderful, E.G.!” exclaimed her mother.
“Bravo, munchkin!” said her father.
` Jim took her hand and kissed it, “Congratulations, baby. I’m so proud of you.”
Eliza smiled. “Thanks, all. They want me to go to L.A. next month so we can start looking at writers and fleshing out the first few scripts. They’re even setting us up an apartment.”
Jim had his fork halfway to his mouth and stopped.
“Us?” he asked.
“Yeah, baby. They’re really excited about this project and said it would be best to stay in L.A. for a few months while we put the team together. I told them about you teaching, and they said that they have some wonderful schools out there. A couple of great Science Academies.”
The way Eliza looked at him, with such joy in her eyes, it broke Jim’s heart. He wanted to be with her, but not there. THIS, this was their home. He had taught here for 10 years, hoped to teach here for 20 more. He wanted to raise his children—his and Eliza’s children—here.
But he couldn’t say anything, not here in front of everyone. So Jim forced himself to smile, forced down the bitter bile rising in his throat, choked down his food. Waited until they got home.
“Eliza,” he said after they got settled, “is there no way to work there part time and here part time?”
“I asked. They really want the pilot ready in six months. They want a half-season written. They’re banking on this show to become the cornerstone of their new Thursday night line-up. They really want me there.”
She looked at him. “Honey, what’s wrong?”
Jim tried to look at her, but looked away. “Eliza, I…well, well, how am I supposed to leave here? How am I supposed to leave the school in the middle of the year? What are we going to do with the house? ” As he rattled off the litany of questions, he started to get angry. Angry at her success putting him in this situation. Angry at himself for his own doubt and insecurity. “Why didn’t you talk to me before you signed the deal?”
Eliza looked stricken. “I thought you would want to come, honey. I didn’t know they were going to push for such a quick turnaround. I thought… I thought you would want to come.”
Eliza took Jim’s hand, “Just think about it, honey. I’ll try to figure something out.”
Jim slowly pulled his hand away. “I just don’t know.”
The next two weeks became stressful. Eliza (barely) worked it out with the studio to come home every other weekend to spend time with Jim. But as she prepared to leave for L.A., things became more stressful. As Eliza worked with producers and studio execs, Jim became short tempered, snapping at the smallest thing. When Eliza tried to talk to him about possible casting for the show, Jim snapped, “I’m really tired of hearing about that goddamn show.”
Eliza looked at Jim, pursed her lips together so hard they almost disappeared, and in a voice on the verge of cracking like egg shells said, “Okay. You don’t have to hear about it, anymore.”
She got up and started up the stairs, stopped halfway, turned to Jim.
“I will always love you, honey…but…” she couldn’t finish the sentence. She just turned and walked up the stairs.
And three days later, she was on her way to Los Angeles. Tearfully, she hugged Sookie and handed her to Jim. “I, I probably won’t have time to take care of her,” she said softly.
Jim looked down at the cat, squirming in his arms as she tried to follow Eliza toward the door. He looked to Eliza, his Eliza Grace, about to drift out of his life, and for what? So he could trudge through the same high school hallways for the next 20 years, all to come home to an empty home: the only thing making it a home 3000 miles away from him.
His stubbornness was still strong, though… and his fear. The fear of admitting he was wrong and it being considered too little, too late.
He walked over to Eliza Grace Mathews, kissed her cheek, inhaled her scent, pulled away and looked into her eyes…
And she was gone.
And for the past three months, it has been “just Jim,” and Sookie. And it has been every bit the torment that Jim knew it would be. And tonight, in the darkness, Jim understood, finally, what he needed to do. For him. For Sookie. For Eliza.
He grabbed one of the candles he’d been using to light up the living room, took it to the den and sat down at the desk. He pulled out paper and pen, and in the darkness, wrote something he knew he needed to write the day Eliza walked out the door, but had been too afraid to do so. Once he finished, he looked at Sookie.
“Well, Sook, I tried. Let’s hope this works.” With that, Jim went to bed for the night.
About five o’clock the next morning, Jim woke with a start. Bad dreams that disintegrated from his mind like smoke left him short of breath and disoriented. He reached down to the foot of the bed to pet Sookie, and found… no Sookie.
Jim felt anxious. It wasn’t like Snookie to get up in the middle of the night. She enjoyed being snuggled into the sheets and blankets. Jim got up to look for her.
“Sookie! Here kitty! Sookie,” Jim called throughout the house. He checked the bathrooms, the kitchen, next to the food bowl, nothing. Jim walked into the living room, got ready to call after Sookie, when he saw her, curled up on the couch. More specifically, Sookie was curled up in the lap of the person sitting on the couch.
“Eliza Grace,” Jim gasped.
“ ‘Just Jim,’” replied Eliza. She had puffy eyes, and her voice cracked.
“I remember the way you stumbled over your own name when we met. I remember that damn copy of Moby Dick. I remember the dinners, and the dancing. Baby,” she looked up at Jim, “ I remember that I love you.” She started sobbing.
“I can’t do it. Not alone. It’s not the same alone. Not after having you in my life, not after making a home with you. I can’t… no… I won’t do it alone.”
Jim had tried to fight the emotions once he saw her, but after listening to her, he couldn’t contain himself, any longer. He put his hand to his eyes and broke down weeping.
“I’m so sorry, sweetheart. I was a fool, an utter fool. A scared, foolish man, who confused laziness with comfort. And I was wrong for doing so. I was wrong for trying to keep you from your success.”
Eliza put down Sookie, stood up and walked over to Jim. The air rushed from Jim’s lungs when he felt her nearness. He wept harder, amazed that she was standing so close to him after these months.
She looked at him with gentle, sad, and hopeful eyes. “Well, you don’t have to worry about that, anymore. I’m telling the studio that I can’t do this, anymore. What I’ve given up is more than I can bear.” Eliza wrapped her arms around Jim and drew herself close to him.
Jim sniffed, coughed, put his hand to her chin and drew her face up to his. He saw those beautiful eyes. He smiled.
“No need, honey. I’ve got it all covered.”
Eliza looked confused. “What do you mean?”
Jim said “Give me a sec. I’ll be right back.” With that, he left the living room, came back about 30 seconds later with a piece of paper—the same piece of paper he wrote on in the den. He gave it to Eliza, smiled.
“Go ahead. Read it.”
Eliza opened the paper. A few seconds later, she lowered the paper, and then looked up at Jim with shocked and happy eyes.
Jim put his arms around Eliza’s waist and drew her close to him again. He wasn’t going to let go, this time.
“Yep. Turning it in today.” He smiled at the beautiful woman in his arms.
“My name’s James, but my friends call me Jimmy, or Jim. Just Jim. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
Eliza Grace laughed. “Thank you ‘Just Jim.’” And as she brought her lips to his, “You can call me Eliza Grace.”